Did you know that Spain drink more gin per capital than even Britain?  No, it’s true!  Everywhere you look, there were gintonics.  Every restaurant and every bar, has a special touch, and there are gintonic bars popping up that specifically focus on these beverages.  In one bar, which we found ourselves taking over, had 2 pages of gintonics listed.

Spain, it appears is a gin nation.  Wine, although much loved and much consumed, is really secondary to the cocktail culture of the big cities.  Here, you will see craft gin of all sorts, sizes, and flavors.

One important factor in Spain is the use of craft tonics as mixers for this elixers.  Gin, distilled from the Juniper berry, has always been one of those beverages that I shied away from because it seemed like an old man’s drink.  It smelled odd, and it was oh so very British.  Tonic water, which has quinine dissolved in it, began an an anti malarial tincture.  Now, with the invention of synthetic quinine, and the lower amounts in the mixer, tonic is used for a distinctive bitter taste in mixed beverages.

Our second night in Villafranca (just outside of Barcelona, where our press trip started)  as we gathered in the bar, I saw pages of gintonics staring back at me from the menu.  The night before, having tasted someone else’s drink and stared wistfully a the tiers of gin on the wall in the small but elegant hotel bar, I knew I needed to explore this.  Next to them, there were several tonics.  These were not your generic Schweppes tonic mind you but they were special edition infusions:  pink peppercorn, orange blossom & lavender, ginger & cardamon.  What were these delicious fizzies behind the bar?

I promptly let myself get talked in to my first gin & tonic.  These botanical tonics intrigued me, and the art of making the beverage is as beautiful as the beverage itself.  Depending on the gin you order, you will get a different additon to your drink.  Most often, gintonic (in Spain, forget the “and”), you get will get lime wedges or slices.  However, if you order a Bombay Sapphire I found, you would get cucumbers.  These might be curled, or sliced, and each bartender had a specific art.

The botanical tonics added a complexity to the drink, which allowed the bartenders to be more creative.  One night, as I was now hooked on the gintonic idea, I had a Hendricks with pink peppercorn tonic.  With that, I had cucumber and dried juniper berries in my bowl of cold refreshment.

One other such craft tonic is Fever Tree, which fortunately is available here in the states.  Fever Tree is a delicious tonic, that sets Schweppes (the regular kind) on it’s head with it unique slightly citrus flavor or which counteracts the bitterness of the quinine.

After tasting a different gin every night, and in fact, more than one gin on some nights, I determined that my favorite is Hendricks.  I also enjoyed Bombay Sapphire, though not Bombay or Beefeater.  Here in San Francisco, our local brewery (which also houses a small distillery) makes two gins.  I suspect those will make an appearance in my bar shortly.   Much like scotch, there are hundreds of gins of all flavors.  Some are more intense, some are more mellow, but all are from the same mold.


I plan to continue experimenting!  A friend of mine makes tonic, and maybe I can talk her in to teaching me the secret to her art, and make some infusions of our own.  What flavors would you like to see in an infused tonic?

Happy drinking!

Cooking with Cava

On our last day in Barcelona, we were fortunate enough to have a private tour of La Boqueria, the lively market on the town’s busy Las Ramblas boulevard, by Chef Isma Prados, one of Barcelona’s most noted celebuchefs.

Isma is something of a phenomenon in Catalonia, and is a mix of Jaime Oliver and Gordon Ramsey.  His focus is on the true expression of the food, and stresses that you should use only the best ingredients to create the best foods.  He also pays particular attention tot he relationship between food and wine, and as we were here to learn about Cava, on this day, we were cooking with and pairing food with the sparkling star.

After we tooted around thee busy market, we picked out fresh ingreidents for a wonderful show, a cooking class above the market a bit later on.  Yes kids, we were cooking for our lunch!

I will spare you the delicious details of the meal but we had:

  • Spring Salad with winter strawberries.  These are meatier and firmer than the sweet summer berries and take the acid of a cava based dressing well.
  • Halibut Cheeks with fresh peas, au jus
  • Sofrito with pressed & stuffed black Guinea Hen
  • fresh ice cream
Each course was more delicious than the last.  The use of the ingredients with the natural flavors, a touch of salt and pepper, and lots of passion made this the most memorable meal I had in Spain.


Rhône with me!

I can’t believe it!  It’s here!  Tomorrow afternoon, I kick off my 2012 Hospiece du Rhône experience with my good friends Amy & Joe Power of Another Wine Blog.

This year is a particularly special occassion, in that it is the 20th Anniversary of HdR, and Amy’s bday.  I won’t tell you which one, since I want to live through the weekend but it will be big.

This year, Hospice du Rhône, the world’s largest gathering of Rhône variety wines and producers, will celebrate 20 years of all things Rhône.  The events are sold out, which is hardly surprising given the amazing agenda we have lined up, and I’m so excited to be headed down to Paso Robles tomorrow to participate.

Fortunately for you latecomers, if you are in Paso Robles on Saturday, there will be 100 Golden Tickets sold at the door to the Grand Tasting.  It is a bit like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, as yo8u enter the gates to the fairgrounds, and see the throngs of people lined up.

For our experience, we are starting with dinner at Artisan, a local restaurant known for it’s wine & food pairings with local ingredients.  Amy, Joe, myself, and our friends from Pithy LIttle Wine Co. will kick off the weekend wiht a dinner fit for Rhône-heads everywhere.

Thursday, I will be wandering around Paso with stops at Ranchero Cellars and whereever else the wind blows up.  Thursday evening, a special welcome reception to jump start the event.  A lucky few will be participating in a  Châteauneuf du Pape seminar and pairing dinner, who will have the privilege to taste Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines dating as far back as 1954.  Author of The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Book, Harry Karis along with Vigneron Philippe Cambie will lead the audience through an in-depth look at this historic region of France before delighting in dinner at Paso Robles’ premier French restaurant, Bistro Laurent. Chef Laurent Grangien has carefully prepared a five-course meal for this enchanting evening.

Friday will begin with wines from four rock star winemakers hailing from the Priorat region of Spain. Eric Solomon of Eric Solomon Selections will bring to the stage Jose Maria Vicente of Casa Castillo, Daniel Jimenez-Landi of Jimenez-Landi, Bixente Ocafrain of Bodegas Mas Alta and Daphne Glorian-Solomon of Clos I Terrasses. Next, attendees will dive into the stones Walla Walla, Washington with a focused seminar by the ever spirited and knowledgeable Christophe Baron of Cayuse.  Having just hopped a plane home from Barcelona last month, I am especially looking forward to the Priorat seminar.

After we are full of Priorat, we head over to the Rosé Lunch, celebrating pink wine.  There will be a huge variety of pinks to choose from, and with the delicious nibbles from the girl & the fig, I might need a nap after!  I seem to recall the Great Pot du Creme caper of a couple of years ago when attendees could not eat enough of the three selections and may or may not have accidentally taken a pot back to their hotel room.

After lunch, and said nap, the Rhône Rendezvous has gone BIG!  This walk-around tasting for will feature 100 producers who will share their Rhône wines from large-format bottles.  Wowza!  Friday night I have a feeling we might be seen at Villa Creek or the brewery for dinner, if we can roll out of the parking lot.

After a good night’s sleep (or lackthere of knowing how things roll at the Black Oak) day two of the 2012 Seminar Series will begin with a look at the historic Northern Rhône with the wines of Les Vins de Vienne. These wines are crafted by three long-time friends of Hospice du Rhône, Francois Villard, Yves Cullieron and Pierre Gaillard. Closing out day two of the Seminar Series will be Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg, South Australia who will guide the audience through 13 wines showcasing the terroir of multiple vineyard sites and plots.

Lunch on Saturday is always a raucous and good time.  The Lunch and Live Auction gives us a glimpse in to the world of the Rhône Collector, as those with deeper pockets vie for the best lots as we eat the delicious food from Far Western Tavern.  Proceeds from this auction

As we roll out of lunch, the Rhône quest continues at the Saturday Grand Tasting with over 135 winemakers pouring tastes from around the globe for over 1000 Rhône freaks. It has been said that to duplicate this tasting, one would need a passport, many weeks off work and thousands of airline miles to taste the variety of wines showcased at the Grand Tasting. While strolling the Tasting Pavilion guests will savor bites from specialty food purveyors who will be stationed throughout the hall.

Finally, on Saturday evening, we bid a bittersweet farewell to HdR with casino themed Farewell BBQ.  The beer will flow, the bottles will be emptied, and weekend is topped off by some pretty serious silliness.

To follow all of the phone, the Third Edition of the app was launched.  This app is available for your iPhone & iPad, as well as Android.  Forget the paper!  Go iRhône!  This all inclusive app allows you to find, track, tweet and takes notes on your favorite wines from the event.  Those with the app will never be at a loss for Rhône wine information when at the annual event or at home. This is the digital guide to all things Rhône.

A special thanks to HdR for this unique opportunity to participate again this year.  I can’t wait!  Stay tuned to @luscious_lushes for all event updates!


There is something unique to Catalonia, something


delicious.  It is the calçot and the tradition of a calçot

lunch to go with it!

A calçot (left) is member of the onion family, and resembles a cross between a green onion and a leek.  It’s a uniquely Catalan beast, and are
mild and sweet.

Every Spring, the Catalan celebrate with the tradition of the calçotada  – much like the American tradition of the summer BBQ, where c
alçots are grilled over an open flame (in our case over vine cuttings, yum!).  The

result is a charbroiled onion, but a sweet delicious delicacy underneath.

How does one eat a calçot?  Once they are grilled, you strip them of course!  After barbecuing,
It’s a delicate operation, as you grip the bottom of the calçot, and tug gently so the skin pulls off in one long piece.  Then, as Toni is demonstrating, you eat the calçotada in several bites – but in one fell swoop.  Delicious! a romesco sauce is served, and you strip off the charbroiled layer in a magical feat of action.


They can get a little messy however, so as
Toni shows us, it helps to have a bib.  Or a cape.  After a full plate of calçot, and several glasses of cava, Toni became…Super Calcot!  The Catalon superhero!

Calçots are particularly delicious with brut cava, as the crisp acidity matches perfectly with the sweet greens and the tangy romesco  sauce.

Now, go out and make some calçots today!  when you can’t find the real thing, baby leeks, baby green onions or red onions can be substituted.  Broil or grill them until tender.  Enjoy with a glass of cava!


The People's Wine

So I’ve told you a bit about Cava, and a bit about the history of Segura Viudas. Now, let’s dive in deeper.

While Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, it is also the national beverage. It’s a drink for the people, and isn’t reserved for special occasions. Cava can be seen every day, in bars, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, and on the dining room table. The high value proposition makes this an ideal beverage for any occasion.

So, let’s review:

Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines).

Historical records show that some form of sparkling wine has been made in the Catalonia region of Spain since the 14th century; it wasn’t until the late 19th century however, that serious efforts were made to compete with France for a sparkling wine with a similar profile to Champagne.

In the US, probably the most recognizable brand of Cava is Frexinet’s Cordon Negro, in the signature black bottle.  This budget bubbly gets a bad rap, and while I was one of the guilty poking fun, it’s a great, fun, simple Cava to serve at parties or in mimosas.  At a recent twitter tasting I participated in, I was pleasantly surprised that my memory of a product similar to Cook’s was completely wrong and the Cordon Negro is really a perfectly fine sparkling wine.

Any way you put it, the value proposition for Cava is excellent.  With most bottles hovering around $8 and many more up to $20, there are some great examples at any price point but it’s a great wine to enjoy anytime.  While there are certainly more expensive cavas out there, you can easily find a great example for under $20, which is very affordable in my book.

My hosts at Segura Viudas focus on making cava of distinction, in the traditional method.  While you are allowed a certian  amount of other grapes, head winemaker Gabriel Suberviola focuses on the local grapes to create special cavas  that really exemplify the region.  While they are a large operation by American standards, the team at Segura Viudas is careful to maintain the quality of the fruit by hand harvesting the grapes, and evaluating each load carefully.  The grapes are then graded, and sorted in to what wine they will become.    You could make the argument that you can just throw everything in the hopper and see what comes out, but they won’t settle for that.  Less quality grapes go in to the every day wines; not lesser quality wines by any means, but these are your $10 every day cavas, vs the iconic Reserva Heredad ($25).  Gabriel and his team can tell on site, and through a detailed process with 17 data points, what wines each small bin is destined to become.

Up next, we blend our our base wine!  This could get interesting…so, pop a bottle, clink your glasses to life, and enjoy cava!


Cava cools you off…

It’s hot here in Spain, even though it’s only March. There hasn’t been much rain, and you can feel it all around. The rivers are dry, the air is dry, the vines are dry.

One critical observation about Spain is there is an inordinate amount of smog at atmosphereic gunk. While I belive most of this is organic smog, it makes for a rough go for anyone that is used to clear skies and easy breathing. I myself am suffering after 3 days of heavy smog, where you can barely see the skyline of Barcelona and you can only make the outline of the breathtaking Montserret mountain formation . Even today, from my hotel room less t



han 1 mile away, the giatn Gaudi Masterpiece, the Segrada Famila, is barely visible in the haze.
When i was in Madrid and Rioja last year, I noticed a simlar issue. With the contstant burning of organic waste (and quite probably inorganic) I wonder how long this city can continue to manage this level of pollution. However, I see steps that are postivie: the city busses are natural gas powedered; there are far more diesel fueled vehicles in Europe than anywhere else ( particular in gas guzzling US); Segura Viudas is making steps to become a green, closed ecosystem.

While in the vineyard in the Penedes region of Catalonia, we toured one of the old vineyards at the estate.  Segura Viudas is a pioneer in the area, practicing sustainable agriculture, as operates as organically as possible with out being constrained to the organic rules of operation. Currently, they are experimenting with reusing the biomass created by pruning, as well as other vineyard activities, and seeling this as fuel. Future plans include using the biomass fuel within

the winery system to becoming a self contained ecosystem.
Additionally, the vineyard manager Sebastià Raventós has been working with cover crops such as hay and oats, to provide a nutrient balance. Of course, this also protects the vineyards from erosion during the rainy season, and also provides another attraction for insects and animals to build a sustainable ecosystem in the vineyard.

Sebastià was born and bred in this small wine growing region, and has the soil in his blood.  His familiy has worked the vineyards in the area for generatiosn.    He belives that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard, and that great wine cannot be made without great grapes.  He is part of the landscape here, born and bred in this small wine growing region of Penedes, and has the

soil in his blood.  His family has worked the vineyards in the area for generatiosn.    He belives that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard.  To this point, he fiercly guards his vines, and has a particular reverace to the old, gnarly vines that are growing freely.  While there are advantages to head trained, neat, trellised vineyards, they are also more prone to diseases and pests since they aren’t allowed to grow naturally.  These old vines, planted 40+ years ago, producer less grapes, but grapes of an intensity that cannot be compared.

Sebastià is a lovable charmer, and his passion and lvoe for the vines is clear.  He is a fighter, and is dedicated to a more traditional way of growing grapes; this return to the past has a greater respect for the environment.  Even though he claims not to speak English, there is a glint in his eye when we get excited about talking about green practices.  He pulls out the seeds for the cover crop and grins when we recognize his efforts.

In effect, he is an ecologist who uses less invasive methods, and studies the history of the vineyards to predict future outcomes.  With 19 years of experience on the saem vines, he has been keeping track of weather patterns, including the global climate changes that are impacting all grape growers.  with this knowledge, he can predict down to the day, when the grapes will be ready to harvest.  Planning a trip on Tuesday?  Nope!  We harvest on Tuesday!

Using methods such as pheromone traps for moths, cover crops to stabilize the soil on erosion prone hillsides, and creating biomass from clippings, Segura Viudas has been a pioneer in these efforts.  They have even gone so far as to create a nature train within one vineyard, which explains the natural habit and what they are doing to assist in rebuilding the environment.

Sebastià has such a passion for the vineyards taht he has been taking care of for the last 19 years; it is clear that he is as much a part of them as they are him.  Teh excitement he holds for creating the best possible fruit, and ensuring that every possible action can be taken to take care of these gems is clear.


Since it was hot and dusty outside, it was a welcome sight to come inside and taste some of the delicious Cava that the winery produces.  Next up, a bit of history about the property, and some tasting!

Barcelona is for…

Welcome back! Here we are, on day 1 or day 2, depending on how you look at it,of my whirlwind spin through Barcelona, Penedes, and Priorat.

Getting here was certainly enough of and adventure for anyone, let alone someone that is 5’11” and mostly legs, not to mention a tad wider than the last time she few coach.

To catch you up, I left my house at 11:00 PST on March 10th. After spending at least 1.5 hours in the check in line – which in itself i absurd for an international departure, it then took another 30+ minutes to clear security and enter the International Departures hall in SFO.

Lucky me, I somehow managed not only to score a middle seat, I also managed to achieve that travel mecca – the completely full but not yet overbooked plane. Now, I would have happily given up my fabulous middle seat if it had meant taking a flight that either was not sardine city, or that my possibilities of getting a coveted upgrade (ha fat chance!) were more than 1 billion to one.

So there I sat, in my spiffy middle seat. Luckily, I shelled out the extra fee for the extra leg room, because honestly if I had not, this would not have been pretty. As it was, my middle seat was the next to last row in Economy Plus. That would have been perfectly fine, because my seat mates were really nice fellows, until…

After watching the first movie and eating a rather unsatisfactory lunch, I downed two melatonin in the hopes that I could catch at least a few hours of shuteye, knowing that I arrived in Frankfurt at 9:30am. Well, that apparently was not going to happen.

I am pleased to report that the row behind me was occupied with three people who simply should not keep their traps shut. Even after multiple announcements by the flight crew to please close your window shades, be quiet and let people rest due to the very short night, what I heard for the next 13 hours (and I do not exaggerate when I say this) was the equivalent of 2 nine year old boys playing Angry Birds. Now this was not the soft lilt of a French accent. This was the percussive staccato of two — increasingly inebriated — Germans — who would. not. shut. up.

To add a sprinkling of joy to this situation, which could be heard through both earplugs and headphones, two older gentlemen were having a rather animated conversation in the emergency exit row immediately behind my German buddies. And what I mean by animated is loud. Why they felt that it was their right to stand there, in front of the people who lucked out and got the exit row who were also trying to sleep, is beyond me.

So here we are, in Frankfurt. No sleep. No brain cells. It’s really only 1am my time since we had just switched to Daylight Savings Time, but I was zonked. Of course, I had 3 hours to kill in the airport. Unbeknownst to me, once you exit the United/Lufthansa International Terminal, you kinda enter no man’s land. There was literally one cafe which was a mix of German airport food and Asian fusion. Hrm ok…After 2 coffees and 2 stale pretzels for lunch, and several tours down the A concourse, I discovered some additioanl shoping optinos, but at that point I had to board my second hop.

Would you like to make a guess as to how many school groups can fit on one Airbus 320? C’mon! Guess! I’m thinking about 100. The airport was teeming with mostly American school groups which were clearnly on spring break. It warmed my heart to hear the hacking coughs that were about to get on my flight.

Things observed to this point:

    • Travelling for just under 22 hours is less than desireable. Do whatever you need to to make it faster, more direct, or break it up.
    • Smoking cubbies are bizarre, tiny enclosed boxes where you walk in, light up and walk out with more smoke in your clothes than in yoru lungs.
    • While you are not allowed to smoke in the airports, you can smoke in cubbies, and everyone still smokes like chimmeys, particularly in Germany and Spain.
    • March is school group travel time. There are hundreds of French adn American stuhigh school students wandering around Barcelona
    • Get to the tourist sights EARLY or you will be in line fo rabout six years.

My feet hurt, and my still not reparied foot is about the size of a basketball. Remember your drugs when you are on a plane for that long!

More importantly, Barcelona is lovely. It’s in the mid-60s, the beer is great, and while there are crowds in the touristy sections of town, it’s also a wonderful old rambly city.

This afternoon I’m off to Penedes to learn about Cava. There will be a siesta in my very near future! Happy tavels!

¡Viva España!

Happy February everyone!  I can hardly belive it’s still “winter” here in San Francisco, given that it’s in the mid 70s, and the sun is shining.  Time to get out and enjoy some crisp sparkling delicious Cava!

Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines).

I am so excited that in 3 short weeks, I will be spend a whirlwind week, learning all about this magical elixer, from the masters of Segura Viudas.

Some of the activities I will be participating in are:

  • An Assemblage master class, where we learn about the traditional cava grapes, terroir, region and climate.
  • A blending session, where we will learn to create our own special bubbly blend
  • A cooking class to learn about the regional cuisine
  • Meals paired with the wines of the region
  • A side trip to Priorat, one of my favorite regions.  Did someone say Garnacha?  Monastrell?  Garnacha Blanca?  Pack me a straw!

And did I mention, they are rather fond of jamon in Spain?

And now, a bit more about my hosts, Segura Viudas:

Segura Viudas has developed a reputation as a premium cava producer, with the property dating back to the 11th century.  The brand was born in 1959, and the wines were first released in 1969.  The Ferrer family of Barcelona, who owns brands like Gloria Ferrer and Frexinet, purchased the estate in the 1980s making it a global competitor.

I’m looking forward to learning more about cava and the Catalonia region of Spain!  As you might now, I was in Spain & Portugal last year, when I spoke at the International Wine Tourism Conference.  At that time, I took some extra time and explored Madrid, Rioja, and the northern regions, so this will be a great way to round out my Spanish adventure.  I wonder if I can accidentally miss my return flight and get lost in Barcelona?

Watch out for tweets and posts from the road!  Can I do this all with just my iPad?  I hope so!

I've been Vintaed!

Remember Wine Blogging Wednesday?

The one day a month where we all gathered our collective consciousness and blogged about the same topic?  Well the same theme anyway.  Well it’s BACK!  And I’m pleased to be participating because it’s a really great way to give me a shove in the right direction in my blogging efforts.  With my day job, life, travels, and wine stuff taking over and an alarming rate, it’s nice to have a topic that I don’t have to come up with.

Gabriella Opaz of Catavino, who was with me in Porto

This month, Catavino’s Ryan & Gabriella encourage us to blog about Spanish wines.  Fresh off the big ole jet airline from a trip to Iberia, where I spent some wonderful time with Gabriella, I am able to supply oodles of info on this topic!  Specifically, Catavino is asking us to look at Spanish wines we’ve never tried before, or something unusual for the area.  Since I recently blogged about Miguel Merino, my new favorite place in Rioja, I thought I’d use this opportunity to write about my new friends at Vintae.

is mixing it up in Spain, and starting a wine revolution of sorts.  They are a young company which focuses on 6 specific regions in Spain, but in a different way.  Vintae represents innovation and change in a wine region that has been very rigid in its ways, much like France, for years.  The avant-garde marketing and approach have shaken up the industry in Spain, and spawned the Spanish Guerrilla wine movement!

In Spain, wine suffers from a bit of a bad reputation.  There is some of a connotation that is is an old man’s drink, or an object ot mix with 7-up or other such items.  Although, when we were out in Logroño doing a tapas bar crawl, plenty of young folks were drinking wine – but it appears that might be a bit of the exception.  Since I have no real experience with the Spanish wine industry, you will need to take this with a grain of salt.

The company started with 5 wines, made in La Rioja, from grapes that are non-traditional to the region. Given that the wine laws in Europe are much stricter and somewhat archaic by western standards, they had a bit of a time introducing these wines to the market. They were, in fact, the first winery that was allowed to produce these varietals in La Rioja, and are guerrillas in the wine business here – stirring up the old ways of thinking, and trying to make wine fun. This is why their new brand is called "Spanish Guerilla". Kinda catchy don’t you think?

On this day, we visited the two different Vintae production facilities, starting wtih the white wine facility, Castillo de Maetierra, where the illustrious Spanish White Guerrilla wines are made.  Castillo de Maetierra is the only winery in La Rioja which specializes in making white wines.  The Castillo has been an upstart, focuses on unusual (for Rioja) wines such as Muscat and Malvasia, and introducing Spain to foreign varieties such as Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.  Currently, Castillo de Maetierra works with eight different white varietals, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Viognier.  Because these are so unusual in the area, the branding became the “Spanish White Guerrilla”.  Each of the fun labels makes a play on a character from the region – so the Gewertz has beer wench, the Sav Blanc looks a Little bit like Fidel Castro, etc.

Carmelo, our smiling host!

Because there really is a sense of terroir and micro climates in Rioja, the production facilities are separate and distinct to maintain this.  The white wines produced here are so delicate and fickle, that anything more than 30 minutes from field to crushpad would destroy some of the characteristics that make them unique, which is what the winemakers want to avoid.  This is somewhat difficult to grasp as a New World wino since we so often see grapes trucked long distances to production facilities. That said, it makes total sense – treat the wine like your first born child, and she will treat you like the king of the world.

The white wines are made here at Castillo de Maetierra, where approximately 500,000 bottles are produced. YOW!  Just a little bit of wine there folks.  Our hosts, Ana of Vintae and Carmelo Santos, the winemaker, showed us around and gave us a peek at the 2010 barrel samples as well as the current 2009 releases.  The Castillo is located in southern Rioja, where it is a high desert – think Reno folks, and it can get up to 35c in the summer. That’s about 110! Phew. Hot. Because of this, they harvest in August at night. This is crucial for the whites because the whites can begin fermentation spontaneously in that heat.

I must admit, I did a poor job at taking notes of what I was tasting, but you really want to know more about the story right?  Suffice it to say, they were surprising and delicious, and even though it was FREEZING cold outsidede, they were highly enjoyable.  The Guerrilla wines, coming in at about 5 Euro, are an absolute STEAL for budget minded quaffers.

Happy reading, and you should be able to find these wines near you soon!

So…you want to taste the wine?

It’s Wednesday, and I’m eager to get out of the city and out in to the countryside to explore. Today, we were going to the small hilltown of Briones, which is about 30 minutes north of Lagroño, where we were staying.

Bodegas Miguel Merino is a small, family run winery (and vineyard, and cellar) located in Briones, a small hilltown about 30 minutes north of Lagroño, Spain. It produces about 40,000 bottles a year, which – apparently – by Rioja standards is small! I guess California has some math to work on in that department. Even though it seems like a lot of bottles, it’s really quite a small winery and everyone is family or friends so it gives the feeling of the most welcoming small winery.

Miguel Merino does things differently, and I like it. All of the wines are produced from vineyards that were planted between 1931 and 1973, on over 11 hectares (about 27 acres).

Being in La Rioja, most of the grapes are Tempranillo, but there is a touch of Graciano planted as well which is used for blending with the Tempranillo. All of the grapes are hand harvested in small boxes, and brought to the winery, to prevent damage to the fruit, where it is hand sorted.

Jose S. Vergara, our guide and chief dude, likes to run things opposite to mainstream way of running wine operations in a very staid industry. Wines are aged until they are ready – adn that is decided by tasting and smelling, not by a number on the bottle or in a bank account.

One interesting thing that Miguel Merino does is that they use combination barrels that are made of American Oak staves, with French oak tops and bottoms. This gives the flavor of each, without the overwhelming characther of either. Traditionally, Rioja wine is aged in America oak, but they also use some Hungarian for variety. Josè also told us that they top their barrels every month, something that was very uncommon in Rioja but is becoming more popular.

We were lucky enough to get a private tour through the “bottle cemetery” or aging room, where we saw some very old and very large bottles that were sleeping, waiting for the right moment to be released.

Now, on to the important bit – the wine! I liked all of the wines here so much, we ended up taking some on the road. First up we tasted the 2007 Viñas Jóvenes, a 100% Tempranillo. I found lots of minerals and river rocks, which is not surprising given that they mine iron and chalk from the hillsides here. I also tasted olives, dried plums, red fruit, chewy leather, tobacco and dried cherries. It finished with some herbs and black pepper.

Next, we tasted the 2009 Mazuelo de la Quinta (a quinta is a vineyard) Cruz. Mazuelo is very unusual for Rioja, and this wine is special because it is also single vineyard. This is the same grape as Carignane, but tastes completely different than what you or I would expect out of a Carignane. It was elegant, refined, and delicious! There were blueberries, loganberries, juicy red fruits, cranberries, and baking specs hiding in there. With only 3000 bottles made, it’s going to be hard to find but was really lovely.

The 2005 Riserva had smokey dark red fruit with a touch of fig, juicy plums, dried cherries, more leather and tobacco, and lots of tannin. It was a baby, and really needs more time in the bottle to be fully appreciated but you can see the potential.

Last but not least, the 2008 Unnum was not yet released. It is also 100% Tempranillo, but is completely different than the others. It comes from 3 vineyard sites, planted between 1931 and 1946, a

nd is the best of the best. It’s aged 10 months in 85% new French& 15% new American oak, and then bottles. It was very meaty, tasting of stewed fruit, dark red fruit, peppercorns, and was quite herbacious. It was still tight and tannic but was really coming in to its own.

All of these wines were delightful, and Jose was an excellent host. I highly recommend you seek out the Bodega Miguel Merin

o if you are in Rioja, and if you are not – look for the wines in your local market! They are worth every penny and sip you can find.

By the way, I’m working on WordPress on my iPad and there are some bugs to iron out so…please bear with me!

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…

And i’m here to teach you a little bit about Spanish wine.
Today we’ll be looking at La Rioja.

Rioja is both a state, and a DOC in Spain. Part of Navarre and the Basque province of Alava are included in the DOC, which is split in to three sub regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Balja and Rioja Alavesa. The total area is about 75 miles, which is about the size of Napa. There is a total of 123,000 planted acres, which is not a small feet in an area of high plains desert, with a rough looking iron soil which is mined for brick making.

Typically, in Rioja, you find Tempranillo, Viura, Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo – which is Carignane.

It seems that wine has been made here since ancient times, and archaeologists have found evidence tha the Phoenicians and the Celtiberians made wine here. OF course, the monestaries aslo kept a brist business in wine making, creating it as a cash business.

In 1926, a regulatory council was created to control the zones and quality of La Rioja, and who can produce wine in the DOC. In 1991, it was “Qualified”, and became Spain’s first Denominación de Origen Calificada, which was quite a feet. Rioja still suffers from the problem of being seen as an old person’s drink, but that is rapidly changing.

Located south of the Cantabrian Mountains along the Ebro river, Rioja has a continental climate. It feels a lot more like the desert, but is very reminiscant of Calavaras – hot in the summer (up to 35 degrees C, or 110 F) and cold in the winter (it was about 2.5-4 degrees C when we were there, which is the low to mid 30s. brrr). The mountains and mesedas (mesas in Latin Spanish) moderate the temperatures in the valley below, and protect it from the winds. I couldn’t really say that about one of the wineries we went to however, which felt very much like Wuthering Heights with the windswept escarpment on a hilltop.

There are three distinct areas in La Rioja: Rioja Alavesa; Rioja Alta; and Rioja Baja. Each area has it’s own expression of the wines, and is very much like Dry Creek vs Russian River.

Rioja wines are typically red, but there are some white varieties as well. Tinto, or red, can be a blend of varietals but it’s most commonly tempranillo, but also include Garnacha (my favorite) and a touch of Mazuelo (Carignane to you and me) as well as For Rioja Blanca, it is mostly Macabea (or Viura), with a touch of Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. There is also a lot of Rose made here, and is primarily made from Garnacha.

The soil in Rioja has a lot of iron, giving it a charachteristic red color – possibly the reason it’s called Rioja? It also has a lot of chalk in the limestone and sandstone soil, which presents a minerality in the whites wines produced here.

Most of the red wines in Rioja are aged in Oak, weith a large influence of American Oak, as well as French oak barrels used for aging. Since American oak tends to be stronger and provides a bigger influence, it’s great for these bold red wines. The tintos (reds) can be aged for up to 15 years in some cases!

Tintas are classified in to four categories. The most basic is just called “Rioja” which is aged less than 2 years. Next, the “crianza” is aged at LEAST 2 years, with 1 of those in oak. Getting better, you have “Rioja Reserva” is aged at least 3 years, 2 in oak and one in the bottle. Finally, the best of the best “Rioja Gran Reserva” is aged at least 2 years in oak, and three more years in the bottle. Phew!

Wineries are known as bodegas, but you might also call a cellar or a warehouse a bodgega just to confuse you.

So now, that you know a little about La Rioja, you can follow along as I taste my way through!

Stay tuned…

Welcome to Madrid!

here it is, 6pm in Madrid, and the sun is going down. We arrived about 8:30am, blearly eyed and exhausted after a terrible flight to Philadelphia, and a mediocre one to Madrid. But in Madrid we are!

Sadly, with the time change and the early morning arrival, all we could do was take a long nap and then invest in what was probably the best hotel meal ever. A plate of cheese, some jam on croquettes and a bottle of wine soon restored me. Sort of.

I was awake enough to wander the back streets of the Barrio de Aeropurto to find the local Farmacia – bascially a local Walgreens, in order to recuse my poor, dry, cracked and split hands from their nasty fate. Yes kids, the first thing I bought in Spain was Neosporin and Band-Aids. Excited yet?

Now, I’m back in my hotel room, with VERY expensive wifi, looking forward to 9pm when I can safely go to bed and not feel like a sloth. But first, despite the very late lunch at 4pm, we will will venture out somewhere in the nearby vicinity for tapas and more wine. Because, well, that’s what you do in Spain!

Tomorrow we are off to Toledo, the ancient capital of Spain, which was occupied by Jews, Moors, and others for centuries before the capital moved to Madrid. Then, we are off to Rioja to drink lots of delicious wine and see the sights.

Pictures to come – genius me, in addition to forgetting my personal first aid kit neccetating the trip to the Farmacia, somehow forgot the really cool gizmo I got for Christmas that links my other cool gizmo (fancy pants new DSLR camera) to my iPad. Since I’m only using my iPad on this trip, it kind of screws up my master plan of sharing day by day shots with you but – I will find a solution!

Good morning, and good night, and see you in Rioja!

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